Story type: Essay
A PAINTING BY RUBENS, IN THE PRADO
Here they are met.
Here, by the balustrade, these lords and lusty ladies are met to romp and wanton in the fulness of love, under the solstice of a noon in midsummer. Water gushes in fantastic arcs from the grotto, making a cold music to the emblazoned air, while a breeze swells the sun-shot satin of every lady’s skirt, and tosses the ringlets that hang like bunches of yellow grapes on either side of her brow, and stirs the plumes of her gallant. But the very breeze is laden with heat, and the fountain’s noise does but whet the thirst of the grass, the flowers, the trees. The earth sulks under the burden of the unmerciful sun. Love itself, one had said, would be languid here, pale and supine, and, faintly sighing for things past or for future things, would sink into siesta. But behold! these are no ordinary lovers. The gushing fountains are likelier to run dry there in the grotto than they to falter in their redundant energy. These sanguine lords and ladies crave not an instant’s surcease. They are tyrants and termagants of love.
If they are thus at noon, here under the sun’s rays, what, one wonders, must be their manner in the banqueting hall, when the tapers gleam adown the long tables, and the fruits are stripped of their rinds, and the wine brims over the goblets, all to the music of the viols? Somehow, one cannot imagine them anywhere but in this sunlight. To it they belong. They are creatures of Nature, pagans untamed, lawless and unabashed. For all they are robed in crimson and saffron, and are with such fine pearls necklaced, these dames do exhale from their exuberant bodies the essence of a quite primitive and simple era; but for the ease of their deportment in their frippery, they might be Maenads in masquerade. They have nothing of the coyness that civilisation fosters in women, are as fearless and unsophisticated as men. A `wooing’ were wasted on them, for they have no sense of antagonism, and seek not by any means to elude men. They meet men even as rivers meet the sea. Even as, when fresh water meets salt water in the estuary, the two tides revolve in eddies and leap up in foam, so do these men and women laugh and wrestle in the rapture of concurrence. How different from the first embrace which marks the close of a wooing! that moment when the man seeks to conceal his triumph under a semblance of humility, and the woman her humiliation under a pretty air of patronage. Here, in the Garden of Love, they have none of those spiritual reservations and pretences. Nor is here any savour of fine romance. Nothing is here but the joy of satisfying a physical instinct–a joy that expresses itself not in any exaltation of words or thoughts, but in mere romping. See! Some of the women are chasing one another through the grotto. They are rushing headlong under the fountain. What though their finery be soaked? Anon they will come out and throw themselves on the grass, and the sun will quickly dry them.
Leave them, then, to their riot. Look upon these others who sit and stand here in a voluptuous bevy, hand in hand under the brazen sun, or flaunt to and fro, lolling in one another’s arms and laughing in one another’s faces. And see how closely above them hover the winged loves! One, upside down in the air, sprinkles them with rose-leaves; another waves over them a blazing torch; another tries to frighten them with his unarrowed bow. Another yet has dared to descend into the group; he nestles his fat cheek on a lady’s lap, and is not rebuked. These little chubby Cythareans know they are privileged to play any pranks here. Doubtless they love to be on duty in this garden, for here they are patted and petted, and have no real work to do. At close of day, when they fly back to their mother, there is never an unmated name in the report they bring her; and she, belike, being pleased with them, allows them to sit up late, and to have each a slice of ambrosia and a sip of nectar. But elsewhere they have hard work, and often fly back in dread of Venus’ anger. At that other balustrade, where Watteau, remembering this one, painted for us the `Plaisirs du Bal,’ how often they have lain in ambush, knowing that were one of them to show but the tip of his wings those sedate and migniard masqueraders would faint for very shame; yet ever hoping that they might, by their unseen presence, turn that punctilio of flirtation into love. And always they have flown back from Dulwich unrequited for all the pains they had taken, and pouting that Venus should ever send them on so hard an errand. But a day in this garden is always for them a dear holiday. They live in dread lest Venus discover how superfluous they are here. And so, knowing that the hypocrite’s first dupe must be himself, they are always pretending to themselves that they are of some use. See that child yonder, perched on the balustrade, reading aloud from a scroll the praise of love as earnestly as though his congregation were of infidels. And that other, to the side, pushing two lovers along as though they were the veriest laggarts. The torch- bearer, too, and the archer, and the sprinkler of the rose-leaves– they are all, after their kind, trying to persuade themselves that they are needed. All but he who leans over and nestles his fat cheek on a lady’s lap, as fondly and confidingly as though she were his mother… And truly, the lady is very like his mother. So, indeed, are all the other ladies. Strange! In all their faces is an uniformity of divine splendour. Can it be that Venus, impatient of mere sequences of lovers, has obtained leave of Jove to multiply herself, and that to- day by a wild coincidence her every incarnation has trysted an adorer to this same garden? Look closely! It must be so…
Hush! Let us keep her secret.